We spent two glorious weeks in Amsterdam, exploring the winding city streets, riding our bikes along the canals, splashing in fountains and paddling pools, and picnicking in the summer sun. The city is bustling and busy, but if you get a few blocks away from tourist hubs, you'll find the "real" Amsterdam where people live and work, which is perfect for meandering, popping in and out of shops, and finding delicious food. The city is surprisingly affordable and filled with museums, parks, and places to explore. Amsterdam is consistently described as the most diverse city in the world, with residents of 180 ethnicities and a 45% of the population considered ethnic minorities. After being in homogenous Japan, it was a welcome sight to see so many different people and to just blend in with the crowd. English is widely spoken.
Trains and buses are easy to use and run frequently (including to and from the airport). The best way to explore the city is by bike - everyone rides and you'll see people biking with 3 children in tow. I actually felt more comfortable on my bike than I did as a pedestrian trying to watch for cars and bikes come from every direction. There are a plethora of rental options in town and I'd suggest reserving in advance if you are visiting on a holiday weekend. We rented from Frederic where we got a good rate for a long-term rental.
What to do - There are so many museums, sights, and outings to keep you busy in Amsterdam, but I'm listing a few of our favorites. Even in two weeks, I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer.
- Noordermarkt - This outdoor market held on Saturday includes antiques, knick-knacks, clothing, and all sorts of food. We purchased everything from fruits and vegetables, nuts, and cheese, and to fresh oysters, which were shucked and eaten on the spot (the stand offered champagne as well).
- Keukenhof Gardens - Just outside of the city center and easily reached by bus, you can explore these spectacular gardens, which are a permanent exhibit of spring-flowering bulbs. If you visit Holland during spring, this is a must-visit to see the tulip fields and the incredible gardens. Each year, the garden is open for spring and then closes. Everything is torn up and completely replanted and redesigned for the next year. It's very family friendly, including a playground, petting zoo, windmill, and various sculptures for climbing and touching.
- Van Gogh Museum - We visited a few museums in Amsterdam and this was our favorite. Seeing how Van Gogh's work developed over the course of his life and recognizing the influence of other artists work on his own was fascinating. The audio tour is interactive and worth the extra money to get additional background and context. If you are traveling with children, they have a kid's audio guide and accompanying activities but they were too advanced for B.
- Explore the Parks - We lucked out and the weather in Amsterdam was spectacular for our visit. We visited parks all over the city and it seemed we were never more than a few blocks from a playground or park. Vondelpark is where the whole city seems to congregate when the weather is nice. We picnicked twice at the splash park and playground there, which allowed the kids to splash and climb while the adults had a conversation and relaxed in the grass. Throughout the city there are neighborhood children's farms or petting zoos, which are charming and really fun for kids. The one we visited, Kinderboerderij De Pijp, was home to chickens, donkeys, rabbits, pigs, sheep, ponies, various reptiles and fish, a dog, and a cat. There was a huge sandbox and bunch of children's sized farm equipment. The NY Times published a story about these that includes information about other locations.
- Bike Outside of the City - Amsterdam is gloriously flat, which makes cycling a breeze. We spent a day exploring the canals and quaint towns north of the city, including Broek in Waterland (my favorite), Monnickendam, and Zuiderwoude. You are essentially riding through cow pastures and along a series of canals and it feels quintessentially Dutch. The various routes are well-marked and most rental bike shops should have the map of rides outside of Amsterdam (it's a pretty common tourist handout at bike shops) that includes this ride.
- Rent a Boat and Tour the Canals - We rented a boat for a morning with friends and toured the canals ourself. It was easy to navigate and we thus avoided the really touristy canal cruises. It's fun to get a different perspective on the city and on a sunny day, it's a relaxing way to spend a morning (especially if you don't have two toddlers onboard).
Where to Eat - We cooked most of our meals at home, but did have a few delicious meals out. Our Google Map is filled with other recommended spots, but here are a few of our favorites:
Foodhallen (as the name suggests, a food hall filled with a range of delicious stands, a central bar, some outdoor seating, and a good vibe), Mr. Sister (for a nice view along the canal just outside the central train station), Côte Ouest (for a nice meal out), Marius (neighborhood spot with delicious food), and Stach for a quick bite when you are out and about or for picking up picnic provisions.
Where to take children - In addition to the aforementioned Keukenhof Gardens and the numerous playgrounds, paddling pools, and city farms, check out: the Mouse Mansion (handmade mice in an elaborate diorama located in the heart of the Jordaan - plus, Monte Pelmo is just around the corner for delicious gelato), ARTIS (the zoo and aquarium), the Tropenmuseum (we didn't make it here but it was highly recommended for kids by several people), and the Geitenboerderij Ridammerhoeve, a goat farm in the middle of the massive Amsterdamse Bos (you can pet and feed the goats and chickens, enjoy lunch, play on the playground, eat goat milk ice cream, and swim in the nearby lake or splash park).
Watch: The Fault in Your Stars (several scenes were shot here), and Toot & Puddle Tulips/Amsterdam episode for kids
Read (to kids): Jip & Janneke (provides an overview of life in Holland by season from the perspective of two children), Miffy, and Amsterdam
Websites: iamsterdam, Suitcase Magazine, fun facts about the canals
Our Google map has tons of restaurants, parks, and sights listed on it that were gathered from friends and online resources.